Wednesday, 11 January 2012

This is not the democratic way

THIS week I have taken the unusual step of refusing to publish a press release from Lyme Regis Town Council.

The Lyme council gets more comprehensive coverage of its deliberations than any other authority of its size I can think of and because of this they don’t send out too many press statements.

When they do, it is usually to promote a new initiative or event and the local newspapers invariably publish them.

On this occasion, however, I believe the content of the statement to be undemocratic. Following our front page story two weeks ago in which the council’s longest serving member, Owen Lovell, questioned the council’s budget for the 2012-2013, suggesting there was enough fat to be able to reduce the town council precept (the amount of money allocated from the council tax to balance the local budget) by ten per cent.

Councillor Lovell highlighted a number of possible savings, including councillors’ expenses, staff training and the mayor’s allowance.

He made his comments in the democratic arena - a meeting of the council open to public and press.

Councillor Owen’s comments won litle support (something the longer-serving councillors are having to get used to). Former mayor Michaela Ellis gave her backing, referring to what she considered was unneceesary expenditure in the appointment of a new works manager on a salary of £22,500.

In reporting this debate, the View made a couple of silly errors which we corrected in last week’s issue. In our defence, we did try to check the facts with the town clerk who was not available due to illness and we got swallowed up in the New Year deadlines.

I supported Councillor Lovell’s view in this column as I thought it would be good for the town council to be seen to be reducing their costs in these difficult economic times, with the district and county councils having been forced to by government.

The only response to Councillor Lovell’s comments came from the Mayor, Sally Holman, who said she was keen to make sure a sum for staff training was kept in the budget.

Neither the town clerk nor Councillor Mark Gage, who led the budget discussions as chairman of the Strategy and Policy Committee, challenged Councillor Lovell.

After the meeting, the council sent a press release to the View drawing attention to “errors and omissions” in our story.

The statement then went on to challenge the points made by Councillor Lovell. If the rest of the council were unhappy with Councillor Lovell’s statement, his comments should have been challenged in public at the meeting, either by the town clerk or the chairman of Strategy and Policy.

With the exception of a period when I worked in London I have covered the affairs of the former borough and current town councils for nearly 40 years. I cannot remember another occasion when a councillor’s comments in the council chamber were ignored and then challenged in a press statement.

I have spoken to a number of former councillors and to Councillor Lovell about this course of action. All of them agree that this is not the way local democracy works.

The fear here is that the new council know they have the majority and therefore do not believe it is essential such matters need discussion in public. If that is the case, it’s a very dangerous road to go down.

I have informed the town clerk that I will be happy to publish the full statement if it is read out at a council meeting which will allow the matter to be debated.

Councillor Lovell has now left for a long-planned three-month cruise around the world. Tucked into his pocket when he left was a statement which he prepared for publication had I decided to publish the council press release.

It was one of the most caustic responses I have seen so we may not have heard the last of this.

THE residents of Lyme Regis, quite rightly, are being asked whether they want the new-look Marine Parade Shelters renamed and if so to come up with suggestions.

The steering group organising the celebrations to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June started the ball rolling by suggesting the central pavilion be named after Her Majesty.

In this week’s we print a form on page three asking for Lyme people to come up with some ideas. Hopefully, you will all participate.

An oarsome achievement!

I HAVE to admit that I have been totally obsessed with the progress of our Corinthian rowers currently on the last leg of their magnificent achievement in crossing the Atlantic.

Since the very first day in December when they set out on their epic 2,500 nautical-mile journey from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, I’ve hardly been able to go an hour or two without checking on their progress. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, and several times during the day, I log onto the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge website to check on their progress.

The fact that the Spirit of Corinth led the field in the first couple of days made it all the more exciting. At the time of writing, the oarsome foursome are in seventh place out of a remaining field of 11 (six have dropped out) with just 687 miles left.

To put this in perspective, more people have been in space and climbed Everest than have rowed across the Atlantic and the fact the Corinthians have a combined age of 226, being the oldest team in the race, makes their feat so much more amazing.

A right royal welcome awaits Chris Walters, Elliott Dale, Tony Short and Brian Fletcher on their return later this month and I hope that in this Olympian year we will really roll out the red carpet for them when they arrive back on terra firma in Lyme.

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